SEBRING – It’s a challenge keeping up with B.V. Belk Jr.
As he jaunted around the Lakeshore Mall Wednesday morning, the new owner of the 500,000-square-foot, 22-year-old mall, rapidly pointed out where new paint would go, how the food court would expand, what new storefronts might look like, and, most importantly, what it will take to get more feet on the floor of the shopping center.
The sale of Lakeshore Mall, 901 S. U.S. 27, for $14 million was announced May 8, and since then, Belk Jr., owner of B.V. Belk Properties based in Charlotte, N.C., has been a man with a mission to keep mall shoppers since purchasing the mall from CBL & Associates Properties Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn.
To keep shoppers in town rather than leaving Highlands County, Belk Jr.-- who in three years turned around the faltering Southland Mall in Memphis, Tenn., in 2004 -- outlined his plans for reinvigorating and bringing the mall out of the 1990s.
With his son and B.V. Belk Properties President B.V. Belk III, Belk Jr. has spent the past week at Lakeshore Mall supervising the first strokes of change in the mall, primarily painting indoors.
It was one of the first steps in what he called a “three-phase” plan to update, upgrade and invigorate the plaza.
His goal is to have the mall renovations done and ready for a “grand re-opening” by October.
“It’s going to be what you’d expect to see in a big city. We need to get the image changed. I think we’ll eventually have people knocking down the door to get in here and we’ll even be able to pick the tenants we want to get in here,” said Belk Jr.
Belk Jr., whose company deals in retail centers, warehouses, land, restaurants and commercial office space, said the three main phases of upgrades would be outdoor landscaping and renovations, then indoor upgrades and additions and finally a push in improving and remodeling the mall’s public bathrooms.
Outside, he will have companies planting new trees and plants, laying more sod, improving the sprinkler system, cleaning curbs and installing new Light Emitting-Diode (LED) lighintng.
In total, Belk Jr. said bout $2.5 million would be invested to what he called a “big kick” to make the mall “the best it can be.” Lakeshore Mall has about 60 store-shop units, including five anchor stores: Belk, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Bealls and Sears and has a food court and movie theater.
“I need to get the image changed, but really, overall the sales here are good,” he said. “But if I hadn’t come here and done this, it could have started losing more tenants.”
Some of the changes Belk Jr. said would be to paint and re-carpet vacant stores so that they become “vanilla shell” -- real estate jargon for “ready-to-sell” and “ready-to-move-into.” He said he’s contracting with all Highlands County companies, and some of the Phase Two projects would include repainting halls to “tone them down,” cleaning and replacing ceiling tile, putting in new mall seating areas, taking away old planters, possibly taking out some of the indoor trees and make dining at the mall more appealing.
A Sebring full-time landscaping company -- The Cutting Edge -- has been hired to maintain the grounds, said Belk.
However, Belk Jr. and Belk III said the biggest changes would hit the palate.
“The main thing we’re going to do is completely renovate the food court so we can bring in a lot of new tenants. We’re also going to expand it,” he said.
Although Belk Jr. wouldn’t disclose which ones are possibly on board, he said he is in talks with major retailers about signing on with Lakeshore Mall.
Lakeshore Mall General Manager Jennifer Cheek, who has worked for the mall since Nov. 1991, said although tenants have left, it wasn’t the mall but the parent corporations of those stores that caused them to close. She said the Belks have brought a renewed sense of possibility to the shopping center.
“I’m thrilled to have the Belks’ family to be part of the mall; I’m almost giddy,” she said.
Some customers and store managers said from what they’ve seen and heard so far, the future looks promising.
As she sat outside Cindy’s Hallmark Shop Wednesday, shopper Edith Cunningham of Lake Placid said she was worried if a new owner didn’t step in soon, slowing foot traffic would crawl to standstill. She said the facility needed some “brightness” and there are currently too many vacancies.
“I would hate to see this big building slow down and disappear. It needs more traffic. I think it’s lovely news they’re working to make it better,” she said.
Down a mall wing from Cunningham, Antony Morley, store manager of Bealls department store, said he felt like the Belks could bring the mall “up to speed.” He said he thought they could make the mall more of a destination than an after-thought for consumers.
“It sounds like he’s really committed to the improvements. We hope he’ll be able to make it more upbeat here,” said Morley, who has worked at Lakeshore Mall for three years.
Belk III said he and his father, who left Sebring late Wednesday, would return to the area in two weeks.